The Remains of the City

This essay and its photographs are about an August 2018 visit to Detroit, Michigan.

In the distance, a black umbrella doubling as a parasol bounces up and down, moving across a field of tall grasses and wildflowers taking in the afternoon sun. I hear a woman’s voice. She sings a tune I don’t know, but somehow it sounds familiar. I can’t see her face, but I know she’s there.

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It’s a scene straight out of a Merchant-Ivory film, where the landscape and people often blend into one cohesive vision. But don’t let that deceive you. This isn’t the pastoral landscape of The Remains of the Day or the lazy summer of Call Me By Your Name.

This was Detroit, Michigan – a flat, barren, burnt-out shell of a place where the sky is gray and the buildings and people fade away in a hazy filter devoid of color.

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Of course, there are exceptions: the occasional burst of color from a mural or the other street art popping up all around the city; the workers downtown who look like workers in any major city across America; and the restaurant revival with its bustling food scene.

The distinctions are tragic and cinematic, especially here in the middle of McDougall-Hunt, a neighborhood on the east side of Detroit where the woman with the black umbrella is one of the few signs of human life.

We visited the Heidelberg Project, a public art environment developed by artist Tuyree Guyton. He took the refuse left behind from abandoned homes and transformed it into a monument of the community’s experiences and hardships.

Shoes, toys, old phones, and all kinds of other ephemera of daily life made their way into the project – all abandoned when families departed these homes decades ago.

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Empty houses line the streets like rows of carcasses left to dry up in the heat. The houses deceive – on their porches and in their backyards, grills, children’s toys, and patio furniture allude to daily happenings, but it’s difficult to assess if the living are truly among us. Everything is so still.

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Every once in a while, a person sitting on the porch of a house comes into site, momentarily emerging from their deep freeze to rock a chair back and forth, or adjust themselves. Then, back to stillness, quiet. Like a silence after someone has died. Hushed. Somber. Painful. 

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Except – here, grief already came and went. Corruption and economic mismanagement drove city authorities to declare bankruptcy in 2013. The city experienced a dramatic exodus of its residents: a 60% decline in population since 1950 (from 2 million people to under 700,000). Those remaining exist in an unspeakable and eerie tranquility.

The remains of the city are a time capsule.  The glorious art deco-style Guardian Building towering over downtown is a monument to the prosperity of the 1920s. For a moment, I imagine that time. I see bedazzled women in flappers. Dapper men in three piece suits and oxfords. In real time, people walk quickly past one another, staring at their iPhones or heading to a meeting. They simply go about their days like all the other days. 

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Not everywhere in Detroit feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. We visited places that made us feel good about Detroit’s future.

We ate lunch at Selden Standard, a hip restaurant in Midtown, near the Detroit Institute for the Arts and a host of independently-owned businesses. The restaurant was designed with a modern industrial flourish in a palate of black, blues, and rustic wood. Business lunches happened. A woman nursed her newborn child while trying to enjoy a meal with a friend. The bar was fully stocked with top-shelf alcohol ready to be made into craft cocktails.

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At Shatila Bakery in nearby Dearborn, we enjoyed what I believe to be the country’s best baklava, a crispy phyllo pastry oozing with decadent honey and walnuts. Shatila is a hangout for the city’s large Arab community, but its also a favorite of other communities and tourists as well. We heard five different languages being spoken around us as we ate cookies made of medjool dates with hot black tea.

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Driving through Dearborn, we saw campaign signs for candidate Rashida Tlaib. It was the day before a special primary election for a seat in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District. Tlaib would go on to win, becoming the first Muslim American woman ever elected to Congress.

The moments offered a glimpse at the hope ascendant in this forgotten city, but there are still millions of unspoken stories in the city. There are still people waiting on porches and in yards, in between boarded up homes and overgrown grass, sitting, watching, and waiting. Does it ever come – the thing they wait for?

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